It’s easy to follow the splash free agency signings.
Peyton Manning’s journey to Denver was well-documented, and Vikings fans have been lobbying for the top guard on the free agency market for years, whether it was Mike Iupati, Alex Boone or Clint Boling.
But sometimes, it’s the under-the-radar free agent signings that make the biggest difference. Tom Johnson has logged 2,500 snaps with the Vikings and was originally thought of as a camp body when he signed in 2014. Instead, he’s generated 16 sacks, 41 quarterback hits and 99 quarterback hurries to go along with his 107 tackles.
While Linval Joseph wasn’t quite under-the-radar, his emergence as a top-tier nose tackle has been critical to the Vikings success, and practice squad signings Rashod Hill and Andrew Sendejo have been key cogs in the Vikings machine.
Rounding out a roster with depth could end up meaning more than signing one or two stars.
NFL.com has a list of their top 101 free agents and ESPN has their own top 100 — lists that do a good job going over the most exciting free agent signings a team could make. Instead, with over 450 players listed at OverTheCap.com and Spotrac, we’ll go over the other free agents that could end up making a huge difference late in the season, but that fans may not be aware of.
It will be difficult to predict which of those other free agents will end up improving or playing crucial roles but we can take a look at the kinds of players the Vikings have signed to see who they’ll target and who may end up in a purple uniform. Here, we’ll be looking at players on the offensive side of the ball
There’s no consistent history of quarterback signings that indicate that the Vikings are moving in one direction or another when it comes to their backup spot.
It’s true that they’ll likely pursue Kirk Cousins as a starter and there’s a good chance that Josh McCown is being eyed as a veteran backup, but we don’t have much to go on to say that the Vikings like certain kinds of quarterbacks — they’ve rostered athletes and statues, as well as passers ranging from 6’6” to 6’0”.
Given John DeFilippo’s statements on what he values in a quarterback, we can probably isolate quarterbacks with some degree of mobility and a history of accurate play.
The two easy quarterbacks to isolate are Chase Daniel and Aaron Murray, as they’ve worked with DeFilippo in the past (one as the primary backup quarterback and the other as a practice squad player).
Both are relatively mobile quarterbacks that can take care of themselves in the pocket if things collapse, and live more on accuracy than arm strength — choosing safer plays instead of taking chances.
They are also both 6’0”, like Case Keenum. Murray would likely be a camp body in this scenario while Daniel, if signed, would almost automatically be the second quarterback behind whomever the Vikings intend to start.
Another former Eagles quarterback that they could sign would be Mark Sanchez, who didn’t work with DeFilippo during the season — the Eagles traded him to the Denver Broncos before offseason practices started — but did demonstrate the best play of his life in Philadelphia.
He never showcased starting potential, but he did improve his accuracy and pocket awareness when he was forced onto the field and could be a better option as a backup quarterback now than when he was actually starting for the Jets.
If one wanted to go outside of the Eagles ecosystem, Chad Henne would be a possible target. He’s somewhat similar to Keenum in that, prior to this year, he’s been a weak-armed quarterback that takes deep shots that are sometimes ill-advised. Henne, when reigned in, can demonstrate some short-area accuracy and let others do work. Like Daniel and Murray, he’s mobile enough to escape some rushers in the pocket without much more.
If the Vikings pursue depth players and camp bodies in free agency like they have in the past, there’s a good chance they won’t look at players like Zach Fulton, who played pretty well last year for the Chiefs — his testing at the combine doesn’t fit their profile, and there are a lot of depth players on the market who do.
It’s true that they could go after bigger names — people like Justin Pugh or Andrew Norwell — but our focus today is one the players that don’t end up on the top free agent lists and could end up playing a crucial role midway through the season.
One of them is Luke Bowanko, a sixth-round pick for Jacksonville that only started one year — his rookie year in 2014. Capable of playing both guard and center, he actually performed better than most swing backup linemen last year for the Ravens than most players do, even if he’s not a viable starting option.
On the other hand, the Vikings could choose to reunite former Ohio State teammates Chase Farris and Pat Elflein. Farris was an undrafted free agent in 2016 and hasn’t seen the field yet, but his relationship to Elflein — and the fact that he’s a young free agent who just barely meets the Vikings’ thresholds at the position — means that he’s probably someone they’ve got an eye on.
It’s not just late-rounders and undrafted free agents that could fill out a roster — having a few former first-round and second-round picks on hand might be wise as well. To that end, the Vikings could go after first-round pick Jonathan Cooper or second-round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo.
Cooper was an early selection for the Arizona Cardinals and was traded to the New England Patriots as part of a package for Chandler Jones. After starting in camp, Cooper suffered a foot injury that kept him off the depth chart, before being released two months later. He ended up on the Browns and saw some playing time before being waived for someone else.
The Cowboys picked him up that season to round out depth for the playoffs and re-signed him to a one-year deal, and he started most of the 2017 season for them. Aside from his first game as a starter, he actually did pretty well for them, particularly as a run-blocker.
As a mobile guard with power and some technical refinement, Cooper might be on the verge of a career turnaround. The foot injury he suffered with the Patriots, however, was the latest in a long line of lower body injuries in the NFL that all started with a broken fibula in the preseason of his rookie year.
In his second year, he had to struggle through a turf toe injury and a knee injury before getting sideline late in the season with a wrist injury. The following season, he suffered another knee injury. Should he stay healthy, he’d be an intriguing pickup for the Vikings.
Xavier Su’a-Filo has been disappointing in Houston and doesn’t have the same potential arc as Jonathan Cooper does that implies that better things are just around the corner.
Still, he’s another athlete at guard who can really make hay in space. He hasn’t improved some of his technical problems since entering the NFL and could still stand to gain some strength, but it could be the case that what he really needs is a new environment and coaching staff to unlock the potential he has.
There are more young players to target, and Brian Schwenke from California and James Hurst of North Carolina both fit that bill. They meet the Vikings’ combine requirements and offer versatility. Schwenke profiles as a center-guard swing lineman while Hurst could play guard or tackle.
Neither has been stellar for their previous teams — Hurst has actually been a liability – they both represent a mix of experience, youth and upside that make them appealing camp invites.
Like Hurst, former Lions and Patriots offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle is 26 years old and could be a target for the Vikings based on his athletic ability and frame.
Unlike Hurst, Waddle put together two solid years for the Detroit Lions before injury seemingly sidelined him and took away what had made him so effective — he was quite possibly the worst offensive tackle in 2015, a year that saw Ereck Flowers, Greg Robinson and T.J. Clemmings all vying for that ignoble title.
Emerging later for the New England Patriots, Waddle was forced to start for the Super Bowl-bound team last year and, though he didn’t look like the 2013 and 2014 version that the Lions saw, acquitted himself well.
Failing that, they could go after a pair of former Packers. Aside from the history of the Vikings doing that, it particularly makes sense along the offensive line, where the broad strokes of the running system are similar enough that the athletic profiles should be largely the same and the footwork should be familiar.
That means that both Evan Smith (formerly Evan Dietrich-Smith) and Ulrick John are potential targets. Josh Sitton is as well, but he’s definitely not under-the-radar. Smith is a veteran who put together a great season in 2013 and has been bouncing around with solid performances since then, signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers most recently.
Ulrick John is a seventh-round pick from the 2013 draft that has also bounced around — Indianapolis drafted him, while both the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals signed him off of practice squads — and has appeared in a few games here or there. It’s difficult to tell what kind of performance one can expect from him, but he’s been appealing enough to a lot of teams that he may as well end up here, especially as he’s a rare 25-year-old free agent.
The Vikings are looking for a replacement for Jerick McKinnon as a pass-catching complement to Dalvin Cook, and they might need to find a replacement for Latavius Murray if they feel he costs too much and can’t renegotiate his contract down to something they find reasonable.
Players like Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead would do a great job replacing McKinnon and would likely be stellar signings, but they’re on both lists of top free agents, so won’t be included today.
Even if they don’t go after Lewis or Burkhead, it’s possible that the Vikings go after a former Patriots running back to fulfill the McKinnon role — though Shane Vereen is now a few years removed from his New England days. He did a pretty good job in his first year with the New York Giants as a receiving back, but has struggled since then.
They could also go after another pure athlete, like they did with McKinnon and Murray. Christine Michael is one of the most athletic running backs the NFL has ever seen, but hasn’t really made an impression on the field.
Even when he’s been gifted opportunities, he hasn’t really made the most of them. When the Cowboys acquired him in response to losing their running backs, he had a clear path to starting and never took the job. Though he had some success after returning to Seattle, it’s clear that they didn’t believe in him long term.
Now having spent some time with the Packers, Michael is probably near the end of his career. That said, if the Vikings can extract some value from him, they should. They’ve loved having athletic running backs in camp, like Jhurrell Pressley, Brandon Ross and Bishop Sankey. Michael fits the bill.
Speaking of former Packers, the Vikings might want to make good on their previous Eddie Lacy interest by signing him to compete for a goal-line spot. Though his career short-yardage conversion rate is about league average, he has the traits that could translate into a specialist.
If they would rather move in the direction of a fullback, they could sign Anthony Sherman. As an all-around fullback, Sherman has been one of the best — if not the absolute best — fullback in the NFL over the past several years, blocking better than his peers while also providing some upside as a pass-catcher and runner. It’s unlikely that the Vikings would bring someone in to compete with C.J. Ham given how well he played last year, but Sherman is one of the best.
If they only want to focus on pass-catchers, then Damien Williams, Charles Sims and Branden Oliver. Though none of them had stellar 2017 seasons, Sims and Williams were among the top running backs in receiving yards gained per passing route run while Oliver had a fantastic 2014 and 2015 before a foot injury took him out for the final eight weeks of the season. He was on injured reserve for all of 2016 and didn’t do much last year. With all three running backs one the downswing after good campaigns as complementary backs, they could be cheap competition to bring into camp.
The Vikings always add a glut of receivers before training camp, and many of them are young veterans looking for a chance to break out. Some could be former first-round picks, like Michael Floyd, while others are from other teams’ practice squads, like Cayleb Jones.
If the Vikings are looking for a big body to replace Michael Floyd and challenge Laquon Treadwell, there are a couple of free agents that fit the Vikings’ athletic profile and could win in the air. Jeff Janis is well-known as an athletic freak and did show off in a playoff game against the Cardinals two years ago. His special teams value could be attractive to Minnesota and his upside with the right quarterback and coaching staff could result in big gains.
Cody Latimer is another big-bodied athletic dynamo that hasn’t fulfilled his potential. The two of them combined for 645 yards… over their entire careers. Nevertheless, they could be as intriguing for the Vikings as Terrell Sinkfield was when they signed him back onto the team from the CFL. Janis and Sinkfield both ran sub-4.40 40-yard dashes at over 210 pounds, with verticals over 37” and broad jumps beyond 10’0”. Latimer himself had a 4.45 40-yard dash with a vertical of 39”.
The Vikings don’t need to go to workout wonders to find big-bodied receivers who have met their athletic requirements. Both Jaron Brown and Brice Butler ran with quick 20-yard splits and jumped far enough in the broad jump to satisfy what the Vikings have traditionally looked for at the position.
If they’re looking for smaller receivers, they could go after Kendall Wright, a veteran that’s worked in multiple offensive systems and could be an asset in camp when coaches teach the finer points of route-running. If the Vikings want slightly younger quick slot guys, they could go after Michael Campanaro or Bruce Ellington.
All three of those players could be useful in finding an alternate way to replace Jerick McKinnon’s value from the slot. Wright was third in the league in catch rate from the slot and outproduced Jarius Wright in yards per route run from the slot. Though neither Ellington nor Campanaro generated great numbers from the slot, they both have the kind of quickness that could be exploited by a smart coordinator like DeFilippo.
The Vikings definitely need a third tight end behind Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan, and they’ve tried year after year to get one. They may be aggressive in the draft and college free agency afterward, but don’t be surprised if they go after some young athletes in free agency, too.
While a few people have connected the Vikings to Troy Niklas, that would be a little outside of their pattern of targeting tight ends who hit at least 33” in the vertical leap. Trey Burton is a popular target as well, and he’d likely be a great addition to the team, but once again, he’s regularly listed as a top free agent target and can’t be on this list.
Instead, incredible athletes like Virgil Green, Luke Willson and Chris Gragg might be on their radar. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them go after Niles Paul or Clay Harbor either, given their combine performances, though Harbor at 31 years old may not interest them too much.
Green has been given a number of chances by the Denver Broncos to prove he can take over a starting role, and he’s never really fulfilled that mandate. That said, aside from last year, he performed really well as a run blocker and could fulfill a role as a do-anything backup.
Willson is another good run blocker that impressed the Seahawks enough that he’s started about half of the games he’s been around for. He has receiving upside, too – he ran a 4.51-40 yard dash and jumped 37” in the vertical leap at 251 pounds.
When the Bills signed Chris Gragg as an undrafted free agent in 2013, they were probably envisioning him to fulfill the role that Jordan Reed did for the Washington Redskins. He was on his way to slotting into a poor man’s version of that, but suffered a season-ending injury in 2016 in the preseason, followed by another one in the 2017 preseason after he signed with the New York Jets. Healthy once more, he could prove to be more than that if he signs with the right team.
Like Gragg and teammate Jordan Reed, Niles Paul is a shorter tight end that fills the same kind of slot matchup role that Jordan Reed — or Vikings draftee MyCole Pruitt — did. He did ably in the passing game, but was a liability as a run blocker. Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings look his way.
If the Vikings sign a former Philadelphia Eagle, Clay Harbor, it may not draw the same kind of excitement that signing Trey Burton would, but it could round out a depth chart that’s needed a backup for some time. Like Gragg, Harbor missed all of the 2017 season with an injury. Unlike Gragg, Harbor has been a very good run blocker and has only marginally contributed as a pass-catcher. Nevertheless, he could end up being a capable backup.
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